My thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

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I had a good chat with Year 11 during lunchtime last week where we discussed our thoughts on the latest – and last – film in the Star Wars story. These films have been around my whole life. The first one came out when I was three years old. I can remember going up to London to watch The Return of the Jedi in Leicester Square in 1983 for my younger brother’s birthday treat. The multiplex there had the full surround sound experience which had not yet reached our local cinema, and the experience of hearing the speeder bikes zooming past from behind me in my seat blew my mind! Anyone who has been into my office will know that my collection of Star Wars Lego has pride of place on a special shelf. So it was with some anticipation that I went with my family to watch Episode IX over the Christmas break. And I have some thoughts about it. This might seem an odd topic for a Headteacher’s Blog, but bear with me – it is relevant!

Before we go any further, this blog will be FULL OF SPOILERS. I am writing it assuming you have seen The Rise of Skywalker and you know what happens and what is revealed – or that you don’t care. If you haven’t seen it and you’ve avoided spoilers so far, come back and read this when you’ve seen the film.

Last chance…spoilers below…

Right, let’s begin.

Firstly, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. I thought the action scenes were amazing, and I liked the adventure. The lightsabre duel in the wreckage of the Death Star in the same location as Luke and Vader’s duel in Return of the Jedi was brilliant. Flying Stormtroopers? Loved it. Leia’s death? Perfectly judged. There were a few plot holes, for sure, but the whole thing rattled along like a good old sci-fi adventure film should. But I did feel let down by one thing (and here’s the major spoiler, last chance to bail out of this blog now!): the revelation that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.

Here’s why I have a bad feeling about this.

I understand that The Last Jedi wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It managed to do that incredible thing of doing something completely unexpected within a franchise where everyone thought they knew the rules. Back in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back did exactly the same thing. That completely iconic, legendary moment in Cloud City where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.” It’s been imitated, parodied, copied and quoted so often since that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what a complete rug-pulling surprise that revelation was at the time. It was so significant that George Lucas eventually devoted three prequel films to showing how young Anakin Skywalker came to be the evil, masked Sith Lord who had also fathered the Jedi twins, Luke and Leia.

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“No! I am your father.” The moment that changed everything.

This was the moment that defined the films for many people. It has entered folklore. And when the new, Force-sensitive character of Rey was introduced in The Force Awakens, with mysterious unidentified parents who had disappeared, it was natural that many assumed that she was descended from some Jedi parentage too. It made sense. It played into the established mythology of Star Wars. How brave, then, how brilliant, how unexpected was the revelation in The Last Jedi that she wasn’t, actually, related to anyone special at all.

In the climactic scene in the ruins of Snoke’s throne room, Kylo Ren asks Rey “do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known?” In a brilliant performance from both Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, Rey replies: “they were nobody.” Kylo Ren confirms: “they were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money…you have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”

Every time I watch this scene I get the same shiver as when Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father. It’s such an amazing twist: you don’t have to be related to anyone special to be a powerful Jedi. Because, by the end of the film, despite coming from nothing, Rey is single-handedly rescuing the resistance from the stronghold on Crait by lifting an entire rockfall with the Force. She’s nobody – but she’s incredible.

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“The Force is not a power you have. It’s not about lifting rocks.” But then again…

Of course, this is how the Jedi are supposed to be. Anakin Skywalker broke the Jedi code by marrying Padme and fathering children. Jedi weren’t supposed to marry. Therefore Luke and Leia were the exceptions in inheriting their abilities from a parent – every other Jedi was just “discovered”, like Rey, with Force abilities coming “from nothing.” The director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, underlines this point in the very final scene of the film.

In this scene, a group of children on Canto Bight have been re-enacting Luke Skywalker’s last stand in the Battle of Crait. They are literally no-one: no parents, working as slaves in the stables of the oppressive casino-city. In the final scene, one boy steps out of the stable to sweep the floor. In a brilliant moment, he uses the Force to move the broom from its resting place into his hand. He is no-one, but he can use the Force – just like Rey. As the camera sets him against the starry sky, the broom becomes a lightsabre and this unknown, not-special, not-Skywalker child becomes the symbol of hope, the future of the resistance and the Jedi. It’s the perfect ending and the perfect message: you don’t have to be anyone special to be a hero.

Given how much I loved this aspect of The Last Jedi, I was pretty frustrated when Kylo Ren – yes, the same Kylo Ren who told Rey her parents were filthy junk traders – does a complete one-eighty in The Rise of Skywalker and tells her that actually, her parents (presumably just one of them?) were the children of Emperor Palpatine and he’s known this all along and, presumably, was just kidding in the previous film. Emperor Palpatine, who was never seen in the company of a woman, who trusted nobody, who lived a secret double life as a Sith Lord…who did he have this child with? And when? And why has it never been mentioned or even hinted at across eight other films?

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“Dark side Rey”: we all have a dark side. We don’t need to be related to a cackling source of pure evil to wrestle with the good and bad inside us.

It’s as though it was impossible for Rey to have such powerful Force abilities unless she was descended from someone “important.” But, as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think Yoda’s parents were anyone special, nor Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. Nor Qui-Gon Jinn’s, or Mace Windu’s, or anyone really except Luke, Leia, and Leia’s son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. It’s as though all the work done by The Last Jedi to establish that strength is who you are, not where you’re from, is just ripped up and discarded in favour of “you can only be powerful if you’re descended from a powerful family.”

So, whilst I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I was a lot happier with the message of the Star Wars universe from The Last Jedi: you don’t have to be anyone special to be special. It doesn’t matter who your parents, or your grandparents, are. It doesn’t matter if you’re born a princess or a junk trader, a stable boy or a farmer: what’s inside you makes you special. Finding that thing that makes you special, nurturing it, training it, and being honest with yourself about your strengths and your weaknesses – these are the things that will lead you to be the most powerful version of you that you can be.

This is the philosophy that guides me as a teacher, and as a school leader: every single one of us is special. It doesn’t matter what your family background is, where you come from, or your previous history. We all have the capacity to do incredible things, and to change the world around us. We just need to believe in ourselves, and have the right teacher to guide us.

May the Force be with you. Always.

Into the twenties: happy new year!

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As the clock ticked over to midnight on New Year’s Eve, we bid goodbye to the 2010s (the teens?) and welcomed in the 2020s. It feels like the future has arrived! Over the past decade I’ve worked in three schools, moved house twice, had a book published, appeared on TV, and – of course – been appointed as Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form.

Mrs McKay reminded me that Monday marked the fourth anniversary of my first day at Churchill in January 2016! Since then our school has seen some big changes:

  • The number of students at Churchill has risen from 1430 to 1581. We have an additional 151 students on our site compared to four years ago
  • The Sixth Form has grown from 256 to 276
  • Level 3 Value Added scores for Sixth Form outcomes have risen from +0.02 in 2016 to +0.17 in 2019
  • The proportion of students gaining a strong pass (grade 5+) in English and Maths GCSE has risen from 52.3% in 2017 to 54.8% in 2019
  • We marked our 60th Anniversary in 2017
  • The Academy has a new vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – and we have introduced our values of kindness, curiosity and determination.
  • The Athene Donald Building, the Alan Turing Building, new main reception and admin, new staff and sixth form car park, “The Tower,” the Broadwalk, and refurbished classrooms in English and Maths have transformed the site and the learning environment.

Taking stock of all that, I feel very proud of what we have achieved together in four years. We are now developing our planning for the next five years, looking ahead to the next phase of the Academy’s progress and development. The future looks bright!

Happy New Year to everyone in the Churchill Academy & Sixth Form community.

Christmas at Churchill 2019

The students and staff at Churchill have excelled themselves this Christmas! The traditional Christmas lunch served by staff and accompanied by the staff choir, the Sixth Form fancy dress and revue, the church services and house activities. This year we included the new Headteacher’s Quiz which you can have a go at yourself at the bottom of this blog – just for fun!

Enjoy the photos from our Christmas celebrations, and may I wish all of you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Click here for the Christmas Quiz!

Election Day

Ballot box 'is key to democracy'

Here we go again!

This week the nation goes to the polls once again to vote for our local representatives in parliament. It has been a tense, confusing and frustrating period since the last election, with Brexit dominating the political scene and frequent turmoil in the House of Commons.

Schools and teachers have a responsibility to remain politically neutral – especially during an election season. This is right and proper. We serve a diverse community which includes the full spectrum of political views. Our role is to educate children and young people so that they can make informed choices about their vote when they are old enough to exercise that right. We aim to give our students the critical skills to be able to see through “fake news” and false claims made on any side of the argument, to get to the facts and the verifiable sources which provide reliable, objective information. In the current world of rapidly evolving social media stories, this can be a challenging task – but it is a vital one if our democracy is going to survive and flourish in the future.

Further than that, we must then educate our young people so they know what to do with the facts, once they have disentangled them from the noise of opinion online. What are the implications of the parties’ policies for their lives? What are the implications for their futures? What sort of society do they want to live in? What values do they hold, and who do they want to represent those values in parliament?

School funding

School Funding

Education funding was a major issue in the last election

One issue that it is my duty to highlight – as you might expect! – is education policy. I hope that parents and members of the Academy community take education into account when casting their votes on Thursday. In the last election, which was only in May 2017, school funding was a significant issue – as I highlighted in my blog post at the time. All of the major parties have included pledges to raise school funding in their manifestos this time, which is certainly welcome – but, as I indicated above, the facts behind the claims are always worth exploring. Websites such as the School Cuts site show what the implications of the different parties’ manifestos would be for the funding of individual schools across the country, including Churchill. Above all, I hope that whichever government is elected works with the education profession, trusting schools and school leaders to make the right evidence-informed decisions in the interests of all children and young people.

Casting your vote

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I have voted in every election since I was old enough to do so. I take the responsibility of casting my vote very seriously – I always read the manifestos (especially the education sections!) and research my local candidates. I want to make the most informed decision possible, and I vote not only in my interest but in the interest of all the students and teachers I am responsible for at Churchill. We are very lucky to live in a democracy where we have a free choice to make for our local representatives. I will be watching with interest on Thursday and into Friday as the results roll in, to try and see what the future holds…until the next election!

What the PISA tests tell us about growth mindset

What is PISA?

The Pisa tests are the Programme for International Student Assessment, in which the ability of 15-year-olds is tested every three years in reading, maths and science. The tests allow comparisons to be made between the education systems of different countries. They are voluntary but an increasing number of countries take part, wanting to see how their pupils compare by international standards.

The rankings are based on samples of pupils in each country – with about 600,000 pupils having taken this round of tests. The UK’s figures are based on a sample of about 14,000 pupils taking tests in almost 460 schools. Churchill took part in the Pisa tests in 2015, but we weren’t part of the sample in 2018.

This year the UK has gone up in the international rankings, particularly in maths (UK is 18th, up from 27th) and reading (UK is 14th, up from 22nd). You can read more about the PISA 2018 tests here.

The Pisa tests also ask questions designed to capture students’ attitudes and beliefs about school life and what it means to them. This year, for the first time, the Pisa tests asked students a question to understand whether or not they had a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

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Growth mindset is term first coined by Professor Carol Dweck to describe the belief that your basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. It is the opposite of a fixed mindset, where you believe that you are born with a certain amount of ability and there isn’t anything you can do to change it.

The importance of a growth mindset is one of my most fundamental beliefs about education. So much so, I wrote a book about it!

What does PISA tell us about growth mindset?

In this year’s PISA tests, students from around the world were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.” If students agreed with the statement, it showed they had a fixed mindset – that is, they believed they were born with a certain amount of intelligence and they couldn’t do much to change it. If the disagreed, it showed they had more of a growth mindset.

Answers to this question were then linked to the students’ responses to other questions in the tests to understand more about the importance of a growth mindset.

Lesson one: a growth mindset makes a difference

The PISA 2018 Report shows that students whose answers indicated that they had a growth mindset scored 32 points higher in reading than students whose answered indicated a fixed mindset. This was true even after the statistics had been adjusted to account for differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of the different countries.

The report also shows that:

“Students who believe that their abilities and intelligence can be developed over time (those with a “growth mindset”) also expressed less fear of failure than students who believe their abilities and intelligence are “fixed”. In PISA 2018, the students with a growth mindset reported greater motivation to master tasks…set more ambitious learning goals for themselves, attached greater importance to school, and were more  likely to expect to complete a university degree.”

From Pisa 2018: Insights and Interpretations by Andreas Schleicher

OECD

Lesson two: lots of students in the UK report having a growth mindset

Growth mindset PISA 2018

Out of 79 countries taking part, the UK came in the top 10 for students who believe that their abilities are not fixed and can be changed – well above the international average. This is good news! Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD (which runs the PISA tests) says:

“of all the judgments people make about themselves, the most influential is how capable they think they are of completing a task successfully…research shows that the belief that we are responsible for the results of our behaviour influences motivation, such that people are more likely to invest effort if they believe it will lead to the results they are trying to achieve.”

Lesson 3: a growth mindset can be taught

Teaching students more about the brain’s capacity to learn can help students to understand that the brain can change as we learn. This means that students are less likely to attribute failure to a lack of talent, and more likely to learn from setbacks. This is central to our approach at Churchill.

The PISA report also emphasises the importance of teachers, parents and school leaders believing in the potential of all children to succeed. This means having high expectations of all our students, and not reducing the level of challenge when learners struggle:

“When students struggle and teachers respond by lowering standards, teachers may imply that low achievement is the consequence of an inherent lack of ability. Unlike effort, talent is seen as something that students have no control over, so students may be more likely to give up rather than try harder…Parents, teachers and principals need to create an environment where children are encouraged to participate, and where educators believe in students’ potential to develop their skills and provide students with the necessary support and feedback.”

Lesson 4: developing a growth mindset is hard work

The PISA report says that the highest performing countries ensure that students are all educated together in comprehensive schools, with ambitious curricula and the unswerving belief that all children can achieve:

“In many countries, it has taken time to move from a belief that only a few students can succeed to embracing the idea that all students can achieve at high levels. It takes a concerted, multifaceted programme of policy making and capacity building to attain that goal. But one of the patterns observed amongst the highest-performing countries is the gradual move from a system in which students were stratified into different types of secondary schools, with curricula demanding various levels of cognitive skills, to a system in which all students go to secondary schools with similarly demanding curricula.”

“It takes strong leadership, and thoughtful and sustained communication to bring parents along in this effort, particularly those benefiting from the more selective
tracks. In the end, education systems are unlikely to sustain high performance and equitable opportunities to learn without the premise that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels – and that it is necessary for them to do so.”

This is hard work, but at Churchill we are committed to achieving it. The research shows that it’s worth it – and the UK is already moving in the right direction!

Music at Churchill

Over the past week I have had the pleasure of two wonderful musical experiences at Churchill. On Thursday night, I watched the culmination of the annual composition project. Our students worked alongside musicians from Worle School to write for a professional string quartet, under mentorship from composer-in-residence Sadie Harrison. Thursday’s recital saw their work performed by the Asana String Quartet, and it was a wonderful showcase of their creativity and skill. The pieces were by turns witty, melodramatic, spiky, smooth, and inventive. I was amazed!

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Last week I was at our Christmas Concerts at St Paul’s Church in Weston-super-Mare. This was a new venue for us, but we had a wonderful time there being entertained by all manner of music and musicians. See the Academy website for my full review!

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The Junior Choir rehearsing at St Paul’s ahead of the Christmas Concert

We are so fortunate to have a thriving music and performing arts department at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. In schools up and down the country, this part of the curriculum has been cut back and reduced. We are not one of those schools! At Churchill we have four music teachers and a team of instrumental teachers keeping music well and truly alive in the school! In the Christmas Concert Programme, the music team wrote about a year in the life of the Music Department throughout 2019. This shows you how much the musical life of the Academy has to offer!

A look back at the Music Department in 2019

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The 12th annual Churchill Young Musician of the Year competition took place on Monday 28th January at St John’s Church, Churchill. This fabulous event is held in partnership with Churchill Music. The audience was treated to a varied programme by eight of the Academy’s most promising musicians, with pieces from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century from composers including Handel, Chopin. Telemann, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Kapustin. The distinguished judging panel, chaired by Susanna Stranders from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, had the difficult task of selecting the winners. More important, however, was the specific feedback the panel provided to the performers, to help them improve and develop their stage presence, engagement with the audience, and musicality.

After much deliberation – during which the audience were treated to a performance by the Academy’s Chamber Choir – the Young Musician of the Year prize was awarded to pianist Jordan Walters. Jordan, who joined Churchill in Year 12 from Priory School, played two contrasting pieces by Chopin, holding the audience spellbound with his musicality and technical prowess.

The Ursual Dornton Vocal Prize – a new award, sponsored by the Trinity Singers in memory of the much missed Churchill Music trustee – was awarded to George Derry, who also won the audience prize which was voted for on the evening. His spirited rendition of “My Name is John Wellington Wells” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer brought the house down!

The Raymond Hayter Song Prize was won by Naomi Blowers, whilst the Churchill Music Junior Trophy was awarded to Ella Hutchinson for her performance on the cello.  The other competitors – Molly Sprouting (voice), John Skeen (piano), Maisie Slingsby (flute), Molly Johnson (voice), and George Skeen (violin) – also received awards for their participation in the finals.

Following the performance, all the winning students were invited to play at the Young Artists Showcase at St Georges, Bristol.

In February, Youthful Spirit Gospel Choir gave a performance in the school hall for the charity CentrePoint. The choir also gave a performance in late March for the Friends of Axbridge Church and also supported the RNLI by giving a joint concert with Joyful Spirit Gospel Choir. Weston Hospice Care has been supported by both Chamber Choir and Youthful Spirit – Chamber Choir sang at a Charity garden party in June to help raise funds for Weston Hospice; Youthful Spirit were invited to sing at the Anniversary Service for Weston Hospice Care’s 30th year at Christ Church.

In March, members of the Music Department were fortunate to attend an open rehearsal with Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason before their recent concert for Churchill Music! Sheku played cello at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and his sister Isata is an accomplished pianist.

The visit of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC) LEAP Ensemble in March was a real highlight of the Music Department’s year.  The LEAP Ensemble are all advanced students from the RBC and they wowed hundreds of people with their playing over the two days.  They worked with Year 12 and 13 A Level Music students on their compositions, impressed with their Monday evening concert at All Saints’ Church, Wrington and then entertained 300 primary school students. In January 2020, our Music Technology A level students are looking forward to visiting Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

In April, Churchill Academy GCSE students were involved in composition workshops with New Music South West; this is a venture that allows our young students to have their compositions performed by professional musicians. In addition, the workshop allows composition tutors to work with our students to experiment with different techniques and arrangement styles.

Congratulations to Chloe Phipps, Year 10, Peter Skeen, Year 9, Molly Johnson, Year12, Holly Stoneman, Year 11, Matthew Lucas, Year 8, Molly Axtell, Year 9 and Martha Withers, Year 9  who all performed and won their classes during May’s Weston Festival of Music & Drama. In addition, Chloe played in three classes on her clarinet and she won each one, with Honours, and then won the overall Senior Wind Player prize and was presented with a cup. Peter was awarded an Honours mark for his performance on the cello. Both of them played in the winner’s concert in Weston Methodist Church.

The Music Department held a 3 day Summer Music Festival in the sunshine in late June. Bands and duos from year 7 – 10 took to the stage to an appreciative audience who also enjoyed ice-creams!

Gospel Choir Lake

July saw the Gospel Choir head off on their annual tour to Austria. As always this was hugely successful and saw audiences in excess of 1000.

Many congratulations to Junior Young Musician of the Year (2018) Kimi Powell who has been awarded a Robert Lewin Scholarship from the AYM Young Musicians’ charity. He has also been awarded a place on the South West Music school’s Performance Development Programme. Kimi is an accomplished drummer and percussionist, preparing for his Grade 8 this year. We’re sure he has a bright (and loud!) musical future ahead of him.

In August, we were very proud teachers of our Year 13 Music Class who achieved 100% B Grades at A Level.

In September, we welcomed the newest member of staff to the Music Department – Miss Dalwood. Miss Dalwood is a multi-instrumentalist who has really made an impact on the department!

September also saw the start of the rehearsing for the Christmas Concert alongside the whole school musical production of Sweeney Todd, which saw around 100 students audition to be part of a cast of 50.

In November, Chamber Choir gave a very successful concert of their full repertoire at All Saints Church Weston Super Mare alongside the Trinity Singers.  This choir welcomes students, teachers and parents and really focusses on demanding sacred and secular vocal music.

All of our GCSE and A Level Music students were treated to a visit by the Lyra Trio comprising 3 Royal Academy students who gave stunning performances and then answered questions about “life as a conservatoire student”.

Our Year 10 GCSE students are currently working with the Asan String Quartet and professional composer Sadie Harrison alongside Yr 9, 10 & 11 Worle students on an annual composition project. We are very lucky to have Churchill Music! supporting the Music Department at Churchill financially for these projects and enabling our students to experience life as a musician outside a departmental setting.

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Churchill’s annual Junior Young Musician of the Year competition took place on Thursday 24th October. Congratulations to Rhiannon Allen-House, winner of the Music Maestro Junior Young Musician Competition was awarded the Colin Undery Trophy for 2019. Rhiannon alongside Oscar Vince and Aislinn Shipton are performing as part of the Christmas Concert.

This Christmas Concert is really our highlight of the year and we welcome full inclusion. The Year 7 and 8 choir Junior Choir is a great way for our younger students to enjoy the community of the Academy in a fun, sociable way. It is definitely a Churchill tradition.

Thanks to the Music Department 2019:

  • Alison Cooper-White – Leader of Learning
  • Paul Harrison
  • Jeff Spencer
  • Jessica Dalwood

Green Churchill

Schools are in the business of making the future. Our job as educators is to give young people the best possible knowledge, skills, confidence and character to go out and make the world better. And one of the biggest problems that needs to be solved if that better future is going to be a reality is the problem of climate change.

It isn’t like this problem has crept up on us. I remember using Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth to teach students about climate change (and documentary film-making) back in 2006 – before many of our current students were even born. Yet, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that we are causing climate change, the crisis has deepened since then. As a species, we are not doing enough to fix it.

Here at Churchill, we are determined to do what we can to put that right. We have made a start – but we also have a long way to go.

A Greener Site

This week the Churchill Green Team, working with volunteers from Extinction Rebellion, have been hard at work across the Academy planting 105 saplings donated by the Woodland Trust. Over the summer the new broadwalk path down the centre of the Academy site was planted up to develop a sustainable habitat. The Sixth Form have worked hard on developing green spaces around the Sixth Form centre. This vital work is just one part of what we have been doing to help make – and keep – Churchill Academy & Sixth Form “green.”

Solar Panels

As part of the site redevelopment, all of our new buildings (and many of the existing ones) have their roofs covered in solar panels. These panels have vastly increased our reliance on renewable energy. The energy generated from our own solar panels has accounted for between 22-35% of our electricity consumption over the last three months. We were also delighted to see that for several (small) periods over the summer, when the sun was at its most powerful and the energy usage was at its lowest, the site was running entirely self-sufficiently for energy.

Energy Efficiency

Internal works two years ago replaced all the Academy’s traditional light bulbs with energy-efficient LED lighting. These lights uses a fraction of the energy, last longer, and are better to see by. A win-win-win! The Sixth Form have also twice run a “no-power-hour” to see if they can switch off everything possible to get to zero power in the Sixth Form Centre!

Green Team Initiatives

The Green Team have also been busy. This student-led team pioneered reusable “green” coffee cups for Sixth Formers and staff to use at the Sixth Form coffee bar. They have also designed green spaces, including the newly-planted broadwalk down the middle of the school. There are plans to open up vegetable and herb gardens so each house can grown their own produce for use in Food Science and Nutrition, and to install a greenhouse!

Recycling and recyclables

All of our waste is currently processed for recycling, but we plan to make sorting waste more high-profile for our staff and students. We have moved to recycled materials for our take-away cutlery and packaging, and we are committed to reducing the amount of plastic in our catering and our school as a whole. Our caterers, Aspens, also use locally sourced ingredients to reduce food miles and our carbon footprint. The new benches we have ordered and installed at the front of the school and in the Sixth Form area are made from recycled plastic bottles, rather than wood.

Political pressure

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Climate activist Greta Thunberg has been an inspiration to many people around the world for her determined, straight-talking challenge to those in power to take immediate action on the climate crisis. My position on the “school strikes” movement is that education is vital to solving the climate crisis. Those who deny climate change have not been educated well enough to recognise the facts that science can demonstrate. Only through education can we therefore solve the climate crisis. Therefore, rather than going on strike, I have urged Churchill students to use their education, knowledge and skills to help save the planet for future generations.

As a result of just such a conversation, Ellie, Saffron, Ruby and Eve from Year 11 met with John Penrose MP when he came into school recently, to discuss the climate crisis and what could be done about it. Their passionate and eloquent speech certainly impressed our current Member of Parliament, although he was quick to point out the complexity of the global climate problem. There are no easy answers – but we have to do something, and each of us can play our part. The quality of our students’ arguments and ideas gave me hope that we can – and will – save the planet. And they made me think about what we can do at Churchill.

A carbon-neutral school?

One question I have been asking myself recently is “what would it take to become a carbon-neutral school?” Schools are energy-hungry places: we have lots of buildings, lots of people, lots of technology which all use power. We use a lot of paper every day – it’s our stock in trade. Many of our children travel to school on diesel-engined buses. We have a significant carbon footprint. How could we reduce and offset that footprint to minimise our impact? I don’t know all the answers yet. But over the course of this year, as we think about the future of our school intertwined with the future of our children, our society and our planet, I am determined to find some.

If you have any suggestions, or connections or ideas which may help us, please let us know in the comments below!

Students’ Voices

In our prospectus videos this year, we have deliberately focused on students’ voices.

Our main school video features seven of our students talking about their own experiences…before I pop up at the end!

In our Sixth Form prospectus video, eight of our Sixth Form students speak about the choices they have made and what they feel about Churchill Sixth Form. The music was composed and produced by the Sixth Form; they are responsible for the content.

These videos were reinforced on our Open Evenings. At both the Year 7 Open Evening in September, and the Sixth Form Open Evening this week, our students spoke to the visitors who were interested in finding out more about Churchill. They were our tour guides, our subject experts, our demonstrators and presenters. The Gospel Choir sang. And all of this is deliberate, because I know our students are proud of Churchill, that they are going to advocate for their school, and that they are our finest ambassadors. We hope our videos capture that; I know that visitors to the school who meet our students always comment on it.

Two new clubs have started this year, and student voice is at the forefront of both of them. This week Ruby and Kim from the Amnesty International Club prepared and shared a resource for tutors to help explain what Amnesty is all about, and to highlight a particular case of injustice that had moved them. Meanwhile, the Medusa Feminism Club has prepared a brand new display to highlight the importance of gender equality in school and society as a whole.

Throughout this week, students have been voting to nominate the Academy’s chosen charity for the year. All the charity suggestions were made by students, who researched and prepared cases for charities which meant something to them, including the MS Society, Phab Kids, Young Carers, Young Minds, Cancer Research UK and Mind.

I have personally been working closely with student representatives this year to help with our self-evaluation. This is the process where we assess what we are doing well, and what we could do better – the voice of students in this is essential, and working closely with a panel of students gives a really clear and honest “student’s eye” view of life at Churchill.

Every day, students’ voices make Churchill the school that it is. And, as I listened to the first rehearsal of the Junior Choir this week ahead of the Christmas Concerts, I was certain that there is no finer advertisement for what we do than the voices of the students themselves.

Kicking the mobile phone habit

I used to charge my phone on my bedside table. First thing in the morning I would reach for my phone, check Twitter, check Instagram, check my emails, read the news headlines, check the weather, see whether anything new had popped into Twitter whilst I’d been doing the other things….

Last thing at night, the same thing was happening. I’d go to bed, but it would sometimes be over an hour before I finally put my phone down to go to sleep. Instead I’d be scrolling, scrolling, through screen after screen of rubbish. Why?

I knew it was a bad habit. I’d read the reports that said you should avoid looking at screens two hours or more before going to bed, because the bright light suppresses the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. And, sure enough, I wasn’t sleeping well. But when I woke up in the night, I’d reach for my phone, kidding myself that it was just to check the time…but as my phone unlocked, I’d see a notification symbol and fall into the trap of “just checking” to see what had happened. And, before I knew it, I’d be back to scrolling in the dark, my face lit up by the eerie glow of the screen. I knew it was unhealthy, but my willpower wasn’t up to resisting the temptation.

I used to read books voraciously. I hadn’t read a proper book at bedtime for ages. I was tired all the time. Something had to change.

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My saviour – a no-frills alarm clock

At the end of the summer holidays, I bought myself a back-to-school present: a no-frills alarm clock. I’d been using my phone alarm for years: “I have to have my phone by the bed, because it wakes me up in the morning!” I’d been kidding myself. It was just an excuse. It had to stop.

Buying the alarm clock was a deliberate attempt to break my bad habits. The one I chose has the following features:

  • Orange display: orange and red lighting has the least impact on suppressing melatonin, so is the best choice for night light
  • Fade-able display: to reduce the brightness in the dark, which again encourages the release of melatonin
  • Battery backup: so I know I’ll get woken up even if there’s a powercut
  • No frills: so it won’t be a distraction

It cost about £15 on Amazon. I plugged it in next to my bed, and unplugged my phone charger, taking it downstairs. From August 31st, I was in a new habit. Before bed, I’d plug my phone in to charge downstairs, and then go up to read. No more pointless last-thing-at-night or first-thing scrolling; no more having my evenings disturbed by emails which can definitely wait until morning; more reading of actual books at bedtime; less screen-time; more sleep.

The change has been miraculous. I still use my phone – I rely on it for so many things! But I have completely kicked the habit of night-time and morning scrolling. I’ve slept better. The school hasn’t collapsed because I haven’t been checking my emails at two in the morning. I haven’t missed out on anything. And I have read so many books!

Our phones are useful tools, and make life easier in so many ways. But the temptation of the notification can be all-consuming, and they can be addictive. How many of us are kidding ourselves that we need our phones with us all the time? Do we really?

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At Churchill we have a simple rule: “my mobile phone will not be seen or heard in the Academy at any time.” One of the reasons for this rule is to encourage good habits in our students. They don’t need to have their phones glued to their hands at all times. They don’t need to reach for it “just to check the time” – the trap of the tempting notification awaits. They can focus on their learning without the distraction of the device. They can and should be interacting with their peers IRL, not through their screens. And although the impact of mobile phones and social media on mental health is controversial, ensuring that there is time away from the newsfeed, the photostream and the snapstreak encourages a healthy balance.

As adults, we need to model the good behaviours we expect in young people, and turn away from the screens and towards the people around us. We just need to take a positive step to break our bad habits, before it’s too late. 

Post script: since September I’ve read these books:

  • Cross Fire by Malorie Blackman
  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood
  • One Day by David Nicholls
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
  • The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
  • The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

They’ve all been brilliant!

New College, Oxford

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New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

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New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.